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Training Safely: Driver operator training needed for a safe and responsible response

Driver operator training needed for a safe and responsible response

December 13, 2007
By Jeff Weber

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In 2003, the United States Fire Service lost 37 fire fighters responding to and returning from emergency incidents.  Why is this number significant?  This is the first time since the U.S. Fire Service has begun tracking fire fighter death statistics that response deaths has surpassed all other fireground traumatic deaths.  That year 29 died on the fireground.  2004 was a little better as stats go.  We still lost over 100 fire fighters in the line of duty, but at least only 20 died in vehicular accidents.

With these disastrous death statistics fresh in our minds from 2003, it may be an opportune time to look at driver operator procedures for our departments as well as possible training solutions for driver operators.  Part of the problem is centred in the career departments, but a large number of firefighters are dying in their own vehicles as well, while responding to incidents in volunteer or part-time departments.  So a revisit of department expectations, training, procedure as well as legislative requirements should be addressed. 

Set the expectations
If you are responsible for setting policy in your department this is one area where clear, concise procedures can set the tone for your emergency response crews.  The department needs to be extremely clear on what their expectations are of drivers.  This is no place for a guideline – it is time to bring out an accurate depiction of what the department will tolerate. The procedure should include adherence to the applicable legislation in your municipality or province.  In most jurisdictions fire department vehicles are allowed to exceed the posted speed limit, as well as proceed through a red signal light once the vehicle has stopped and made sure that it is safe to proceed through the intersection, among a few other exceptions of the Highway Traffic Act. 

It is the responsibility of the fire department to ensure that their policy or procedure is consistent with local law.  Provide the officer, drivers and communicators precise guidance on what  constitutes a priority call that should be proceeded to with due accord.  Give guidance on what calls are low priority that may be driven to with less intensity.  Define what are full “lights and sirens” calls and what are not.  Make this part of your procedure and expect adherence.

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Provide firm leadership
This is where the supervisor comes in. Captains and acting captains have a responsibility for the safe operation of the vehicle.  Seems funny, doesn’t it?  You’re in control and responsible for the safe operation of the vehicle even though you’re not driving.  Here’s why.  You’re not responsible to the Highway Traffic Act to operate the vehicle safely.  That is the driver’s responsibility.  You, as the supervisor, have a responsibility to the Occupational Health and Safety Act to ensure that all potential and actual hazards are identified and you are ultimately in charge of the safety of your crew.  That includes your supervision of the driver of the vehicle to ensure that the vehicle, in your estimation, is being operated in a safe manner adhering to applicable legislation as well as departmental procedure.  That can also include evaluating traffic, road and weather conditions to ensure the safe arrival of your crew at the scene of an incident.

Be careful how you charge your drivers as well. You are in charge of the crew.  You can give them clear instructions on how you expect them to drive while under your command.  Be clear of your expectations of a driver in front of your whole crew.  Make it clear that the driver take this responsibility seriously.  Ultimately, the driver is the one that is responsible to the Highway Traffic Act and it would be his or her driving record that would be affected if there was an incident.

Where the rubber hits the road
Well, we’ve done a lot of top-end browbeating.  Let’s address the driver. The responsibility for the safety of you, the crew and the general public lie with the driver.  The driver has to balance prompt arrival at the scene with traffic patterns, road and weather conditions, and the condition and mechanical ability of the response vehicle.  This may at times be a delicate balance. You are the one that starts off the call.  The energy and urgency may be high for prompt arrival.  We’ve all gone to the calls where you are dispatched to a “kids hurt” call.  We all seem to move a little faster, our pulses race a little faster and our desire to get there and help is through the roof.  As a professional driver, you have to cut through that energy and do what is best to get the crew there safely.  I have personally ridden in the captain’s seat with drivers that felt that all calls were “lights and sirens” type calls.  If the public has called us for assistance it is our responsibility to arrive as fast as possible.  “As fast as possible” needs to be tempered with “as safe as possible.”  If we can go out the door with the mindset of “as safe as possible,” we will always be using due diligence for the protection of the other workers on the vehicle with you as well as a due regard for the safety of the general public.

I know all of you who are apparatus drivers can relay a story of how some bonehead driver from the general public has pulled a stupid move in front of you while you were responding.  It seems so simple to us.  Don’t they see the 30-tonne truck with the red and white flashing lights?  Can’t they hear the sirens?  Quite frankly, no. That is obvious.  But, the other aspect of this is we scare people.  As we approach in an emergency mode with lights and sirens a lot of people don’t remember, don’t realize or can’t think that fast to know what to do. We need to drive more defensively than ever before.  We almost need to drive their vehicle for them.

Responding in personal vehicles
I want to change gears here to deal with another issue that lies with a specific group.  This is the volunteer and part-time fire fighters who respond either to the station or to the scene in their own vehicles.  Look on the Internet at the NIOSH web site.  Read how many fire fighters are killed in their private vehicles responding to the hall or to the scene.  Seven of the 20 fire fighters killed in vehicle collisions last year (2004) were killed while driving their own vehicles.  Only five died on responding fire apparatus.  Think that isn’t significant?  In 2003, 37 fire fighters were killed travelling to and from emergency incidents.  Of these, 24 were involved in collisions of which eight were not wearing seatbelts and six were speeding.

I’m not entirely sure about other jurisdictions, but Ontario doesn’t permit any exemptions to the Highway Traffic Act for fire fighters responding to an incident in their personal vehicles. You cannot exceed the posted limit. You cannot proceed through a red light. You cannot enter a closed road. You cannot enter a controlled access highway in the opposite direction. There are no exemptions. If you are responding outside the law and are caught by police you can be charged under the Highway Traffic Act.

In Ontario the province has permitted the use of green flashing lights either on or in the vehicle to indicate to the public it is a firefighter responding to an incident.  This does not turn your private vehicle into a fire department vehicle.  You still have to obey the law.  There is still no exemption of the Highway Traffic Act for a firefighter responding to an incident sporting a flashing green light. It is meant to provide a courtesy from the general public to permit you to pass.

Volunteer and part-time departments should review this on a regular basis with their personnel.  Ensure that it is indicated in a procedure and that it is reviewed with your personnel. Have a zero tolerance policy regarding this.

The one aspect that may just be starting to be a bigger concern is insurance coverage.  If a personal vehicle is operated outside of the law during a response to a fire scene there may be insurance implications that a firefighter may not have realized.  This has become a reality in Ontario with a warning from the Ontario Fire Marshal in Communique 2004-29, “Firefighter Response in Personal Vehicles on Closed Roads.”  The warning from the OFM is in direct relation to a warning from the Ontario Provincial Police.  Police cite the fact that only service vehicles, police vehicles, fire vehicles and ambulances are permitted to travel on a road once it has been closed.  Firefighters responding on a closed road in their personal vehicle can be charged under the Highway Traffic Act and the firefighter’s insurance rate may be affected by that charge.

Training issues
Driving is a skill.  Just like firefighting skills, it is multi-faceted.  You wouldn’t think of not splitting firefighting skills into separate subjects such as ventilation or suppression techniques. Why treat driving any differently?  Driving skills should be a part of an overall training plan and should be reviewed periodically.  One great place to start is to set up a simple driving skills course.  This focuses on non-emergency familiarization of the vehicle’s capabilities.  Here are a few easy obstacles to set up in a large parking lot in your area.

The dock: Place pylons in an arrangement to create a rectangular docking area. The vehicle is then backed into the docking area as close to but without hitting the back row of pylons.

Diverging lane:  Place a straight row of pylons about 30 to 40 feet long with a pylon every four to five feet.  Make another row of pylons creating a lane that diverges down from 11 feet to about two to three inches wider than your truck’s wheelbase. Have drivers proceed down the lane from the wide end to the narrow end.

Offset lanes: Using eight pylons make two short lanes that are offset by about eight feet. It may take some setting up, but try to make the offset very tight so it is difficult to swing from one lane to the other.

Parallel park: Set up a parallel parking lane using pylons so your drivers can practice backing their vehicle into such a position.

Serpentine course: Set out pylons with about 30 feet spacing and have drivers proceed through them in a serpentine fashion both forward and backwards.  To make this more difficult, place a box of pylons around the area that the driver cannot go out of  while going through the course.

Use the preceding examples in a full obstacle course.  Make a rodeo competition out of it.  Don’t put emphasis on time. Put the emphasis and marking on accuracy.  Knock off points for hitting pylons. An easy and cheap alternative to pylons in laying out an obstacle course is old tennis balls that are cut in half. 

Driver training isn’t just about familiarization.  It should be augmented with specific instruction on response driving, defensive driving and collision avoidance.  Each subject should be developed as a theory and practical package.  Each subject should be incorporated into an annual training plan and reviewed periodically to ensure all drivers are on top of their skills.  This will hopefully keep us showing up at the emergency incidents as safe as possible.

Capt. Jeff Weber is a 13-year member of the Kitchener (Ont.) Fire Dept.. Promoted captain in 1999, he moved from the suppression division to the training division in 2003. Weber was involved with the inception, development and delivery of the Pre-Entry and Pre-Service Program at Conestoga College between 1997 and 2000, and was the program co-ordinator for its initial two years. He is an active member of Kitchener’s high/low angle rope rescue committee, water rescue committee, haz-mat committee  and confined space committee and has served on the joint OH&S committee as an association member since 1995. He holds a teacher/trainer of adults certificate from Conestoga College.


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